by Taimur Ahmad

What was I, a New York City boulderer, doing 13 miles in the Wyoming backcountry, standing at the top of the East Face of Cloud Peak, staring down its 1000+ foot face of unclimbed granite and the crevasse-filled glacier below? Technically, to try and do the first ascent of a new big wall route with Arno Ilgner, founder of The Warrior’s Way mental training program. But in reality, it was to push myself outside my bouldering comfort zone and apply my mental training. This is what I’d been working on with Arno for a year: learning how to create a free mind so I could be a better climber, and be an asset on this project in particular. 

Climbing is uncomfortable: holds are sharp, gear is heavy, falling is scary. But failing is often scarier. The unfortunate truth is that we often want to send hard, bold lines to feed our egos and make ourselves feel worthwhile. The ego wants validation, but in doing so we usually ignore the most interesting part of the whole climbing experience: the unknown, the uncertainty, the doubt, the discomfort that makes climbing worthwhile. 

Would I be able to climb the wall, having never done something so big, at 13,000 feet, with complicated logistics, for an extended time? Would I be able to figure out the awkward climbing style and actually apply my bouldering strength? I feel strong as a boulderer, but would I feel strong climbing in that alpine environment? Would I feel confident leading long pitches, with a heavy trad rack, and placing micro cams to keep me safe? Could I deal with the exposure? Would I have the stamina for long days, starting at sunrise and finishing after dark? And most importantly, would I be able to step up at that critical moment and send the crux pitch, to make our dream a reality?

The weight of these questions, and the expectation of a badass new route with my name attached to it, was intimidating. But through my training I was learning to find doubt interesting and uncertainty fascinating. What if we could be motivated by discomfort, by not knowing how it’ll turn out, and by struggling rather than sending the route? What if we come to the realization that, while goals are crucial, learning itself is really the most powerful part of the experience?

In the months leading up to our expedition, I prepared in a very different way than I did for bouldering. I trained physically so I’d be able to handle long endurance climbing. I trained technically, learning how to rest in the middle of stressful stances, and to relax my grip while clipping. I trained mentally by doing falling practice, learning to take a fall with comfort and intention. And most nights before bed, I took a cold shower.  

The cold shower was part of the broader mental training I was doing with Arno. The purpose was to learn how to lean into that discomfort, then to relax into it, and ultimately be motivated by the discomfort itself. Cold water is uncomfortable, but it can also be exciting.

At night, before stepping into the shower, I visualized myself standing at the base of that granite wall, looking up at it. It was big, scary, and hard. It was unknown and out of my comfort zone. I visualized myself engaging with that unknown and that discomfort. I visualized myself stepping up to it with curiosity and excitement, not dread or anxiety, or a pressure to send and get it over with. I pictured myself shaking out before the crux sequence Arno had described to me: a crimpy, powerful bulge halfway up the route. I saw myself engaging that crux, staying relaxed, being psyched and ready to pull those granite crimps off the wall. And then I would step into the shower. The cold water was my analogy. By choosing to engage this one small, inconsequential discomfort, I could project myself into a much larger, more serious one.  

The time to commit arrived. Arno picked me up at the Denver airport and we drove to Wyoming. We hiked into the backcountry over two days with brutal seventy-pound packs, higher and higher up jumbled, uneven, knee-crunching talus slopes. The hike alone was exhausting. Then we had to do the work of prepping the route – adding a few bolts, previewing the crux, and figuring out gear and logistics, like hauling. The days were long and constantly stressful with the massive exposure, cold, wind, occasional snow, altitude, and poor sleep, creating doubts to shut us down. But we persisted and progressed on schedule. The weather cleared. Our partnership was strong and supportive. We were ready.

On our send day it took us about two hours to get down the wall in five long rappels. We lingered a bit at the crux pitch on our rappel to reaffirm the beta sequence. Then we  continued to the base. The sun rose in a cloudless sky and for once we were actually warm, even a bit hot. We racked our gear, sorted our ropes, and began climbing. It went smoothly. We finished the lower pitches slowly but surely. And then there we were. We’d arrived at that moment I’d visualized all these past months: the sequential, thought-provoking, gorgeous crux pitch.

After all the work it had taken to get us here, it was my turn to lead. I felt ready. Nothing else. No anxiety, no expectations, no pressure, no fear. I was just curious and eager to engage with the challenge, to probe it, to push into it, and see if I could pass my test.  

I’d visualized myself at that belay so many times. I’d seen myself relaxing my way through the sequence of square-cut crimps as cold water poured over me time and time again. I didn’t visualize myself sending or succeeding, but rather being present, curious, and ready to engage with discomfort. In that moment, though, there didn’t seem to be discomfort. There was only me and the rock. With Arno having done a tremendous amount of work to make this climb possible in the first place, it was now time for me to make my contribution to our project. I had a job to do. 

I worked my way through a series of thin, technical boulder problems before getting to the solid but awkward rest before the crux. I took my time getting it all back and then launched into the final sequence with no hesitation, executing the beta I’d visualized on our rappel. The moves were strenuous but I was locked in, and before long I found myself shaking out on jugs after the crux, relaxed and taking my time. When I arrived at the anchors, I let myself have a victory yelp. But we had more pitches to climb – and a sunset to race – before celebrating.

The mental training I was doing with Arno is helpful, but it’s not a silver bullet. I still mess up so much. I still allow my ego to intrude and distract my attention. It’s always lurking, always comparing myself to others, always creating expectations and enticing me with comfort and excuses for my performance. But at least now, I can hear when my ego whispers in my ears; I’m aware of it. I hear my ego, acknowledge it, and refocus. All that’s relevant is me, the climb, and the challenge I’ve chosen to engage. And even when my ego gets the best of me, I know I’ve been fooled by it, and work to do better next time.

After a year of serious mental training with Arno I still have a long way to go with my head-game. But I can also see how far I’ve come. And sometimes, like on the crux of Cloud Peak, I see the training shine through, expressed in my effort. I feel, if only for a moment, like I’ve achieved the free mind we’ve been striving towards.  

But, be warned. I’ve found that all this mental training is a trick. My initial motivation for doing it was to climb harder, but as I progressed, what I began to understand is that it’s not really about sending a harder grade or even about climbing. At its most fundamental level, it’s about become more aware. With awareness, my mind is becoming, slowly but surely, more free.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Taimur and Arno,
    Wow, a boulderer doing over a 1000′ climb! That sounds like you were way out of your comfort zone.
    I’d like to hear more about it sometime, and take on something of that nature myself!
    Robby

  2. I appreciate this post very much and will share it with staff at the North Carolina Outward Bound school, as well as with teachers and students I serve. I think you have zeroed in on the fundamental truth that it is the process of learning itself, through hardship and risk, that open the receptors of attention a little more. Worthwhile effort; right thought and action. Thanks for sharing it.
    Onward,
    Dr. Gordon Grant, Education Director, N. C. Outward Bound School.

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